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Senate Democrats push for campaign finance reform

Karen Dewitt
Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, other Democratic Senators, and advocates, press for bill closing LLC loophole Monday

Democrats in the New York State Senate are attempting to close a loophole in the state’s campaign finance laws, while a new poll finds New Yorkers want lawmakers to take more steps to quell corruption.

Democrats, who are the minority party in the Senate,  pressed for a bill that would place limits on campaign donations from limited liability corporations. The LLC’s, which are easily set up at a cost of a few hundred dollars, have often been used as a front organization to bundle money from donors who wish to exceed the legal limits for individual and corporate donations to candidates.      

Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says with Albany experiencing a wave of corruption, including the arrest of an Assembly speaker this session and the federal investigation of the Senate Republican leader, it’s time to take steps to clean things up.

“We have an opportunity, yet again, to forge a new path, to restore public trust,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We are urging our Senate Republican colleagues to do the right thing.”

Democrats say the loophole has led to LLC’s, which can easily be set up on paper, to contribute over $40 million to New York state candidates, parties and political action committees in the past decade. The bill would reduce the contribution limit for both LLCs and corporations to just $1,000 annually.

Meanwhile, a new poll finds voters think that more ethics reform is needed in New York. Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for Siena College, which conducted the survey, says the majority believes the latest anti-corruption measures passed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature are ineffective.

“Sixty-eight percent of voters agree with critics of the governor that the new law has too many loopholes,” Greenberg said. “Only 20 percent agree with the governor that these are the strongest ethics laws in the nation.” 

Cuomo had called for a number of anti-corruption measures to be tied to the state budget, including closing the LLC loophole, but in the end had to drop some of them. He did achieve additional disclosure of lawmaker’s outside income, as well as reform of legislators’ daily expense accounts and the go-ahead to change the state’s constitution to require that lawmakers convicted of crimes forfeit their pensions. Cuomo said at the time that the disclosure laws are among the strictest in the country.     

But the poll finds most voters say they are glad that, in the end, the state budget was not held up and made late over the ethics issue.

“Voters say the governor was right not to hold out for bigger ethics changes and not risk an on time budget,” Greenberg said.

Sen. Dan Squadron, who is the sponsor of the bill to close the LLC loophole, says he believes that if both houses of the legislature passed the measure, the governor would sign it. The Assembly intends to approve the bill.

“Not to anticipate bad news today, but if it doesn’t work, it’s so disappointing,” said Squadron.  

Cuomo, as well as the legislature, have accepted donations from LLC’s. 

A spokesman for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, said in a statement, “The governor supports and will continue to fight for closing the LLC loophole. Today’s passage of legislation out the Senate Elections Committee that would accomplish this goal is a positive development and one that we hope ends with an actual vote and passage from the full Senate.”

The measure was approved in the Senate Elections committee, but must still be considered in the Corporations Committee, which meets infrequently. It’s unclear whether the bill will be released for a vote in the committee before the session ends.

Activists also tried to convince the New York State Board of Elections to administratively change the rules and limit LLC contributions, but the board deadlocked, with the two Democratic commissioners voting yes and the two Republicans voting no.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.